It takes a tough executive to freeze a hockey season, withstanding pressure and criticism from players and fans. But National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman ’77 cited brains, not brawn, with giving him the strength to stick to even wildly unpopular management decisions.
By Bettman’s analysis, a wide disparity in the competitive skills of teams was hurting the league overall. Clubs with $80 million payrolls were predictably trouncing those with $20 million. “If you don’t think you can outscore somebody, you’ve got to do something else in the game to try and slow them down,” said Bettman.
When it came time for a new collective bargaining agreement in 2004, the players’ union balked at the proposed salary cap. But believing the NHL needed a new economic system, and that a cap would provide longterm stability, Bettman stood his ground. The subsequent lockout led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
“Very few businesses ever shut down and live to tell about it, but we set a record [in 2005-06] for both attendance and revenues,” said Bettman. “No sports league has ever lost a whole season, and that’s not something I’m proud of. What I am proud of is how well we came back.”
Bettman, who was the guest of Dean Richard Revesz at an October roundtable, talked expansively about his legal career and how he made the transition to business executive. “It was nothing but serendipity,” Bettman said of his path from being an attorney at Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn to taking executive posts with not one, but two sports leagues. Prior to serving as the first commissioner of the NHL, Bettman spent 12 years as senior vice president and general counsel of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
“Almost everything we do in a sports league has a legal implication,” Bettman said, explaining that as the head of the “most international of the North American sports,” he has dealt with upholding the NHL’s by-laws as well as handling its advertising agreements, jurisdictional issues, intellectual-property infringements, broadcast and Internet rights, Olympic participation, injury compensation and even a criminal investigation into alleged gambling. “[The NHL is], like lots of entertainment companies, in lots of businesses that touch lots of areas of the law.”
Bettman’s tenure with the NHL, which began in 1993, has been the catalyst for myriad changes to the sport. Bettman expanded the league to an impressive 30 franchises, up from 24 when he took the job. Stanley Cup-champion teams have represented such non-traditional hockey markets as Raleigh, North Carolina; Tampa, and Dallas. Bettman also implemented rules changes designed to make gameplay more exciting for the fans. The licensing and sponsorship revenue for the NHL is on par with such other sports merchandising juggernauts as Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the NBA. Bettman now looks back on his fateful 2004 decisions as the beginning of a new direction for the league. As the famed Canadian hockey announcer Foster Hewitt put it, “He shoots; he scores!”
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